There are stories of all kinds that deal with entering the unknown. Whether it’s journeying into an uncharted land or meeting aliens on another planet, the subject holds a timeless allure.
In Alex Garland’s adaptation of Annihilation, a sci-fi novel by Jeff VanderMeer, entering the unknown is cast in a subtly new light. It’s about an encounter with the uncanny, but it’s also about human motivation: what drives us to venture off into uncertainty? Is it necessarily heroism, scientific curiosity, or can it be something much darker?
Garland’s follow-up to his stunning directorial debut, Ex Machina, Annihilation is another genre piece that favours suspense and thought over pyrotechnics – though like Ex Machina, it has more than a few moments to freeze the blood. Natalie Portman stars as Lena, a former soldier and scientist who joins an expedition to study something called the Shimmer: an unnatural curtain of light that first appeared in a remote part of America’s deep south, but is gradually expanding to swallow everything in its path.
Months earlier, Lena’s husband, Kane (Oscar Isaac) was a member of an ill-fated military expedition into the Shimmer; she has her own reason, then, to find out what the anomaly is. The deeper Lena’s team journey into the Shimmer, though, the more its mysteries deepen: the energy field has a curious effect on everything from animals to plant life, and gradually, the explorers themselves begin to succumb to its unearthly power.
Whether he wrote or directed them, Garland’s previous films often deal with the way characters deal with the stresses of extraordinary events. A solar expedition falls apart at the seams in Sunshine; a viral outbreak reveals the darker continents of the human psyche in 28 Days Later; solitary confinement begets monsters in Ex Machina. Slowly, brilliantly, Annihilation teases out the tiny flaws among its small group of five explorers: a fidgety psychologist played by Jennifer Jason Leigh; Gina Rodridguez’s paramedic; Tessa Thompson’s physicist, and Tuva Novotny’s geologist. The more they explore the Shimmer, the more their individual flaws are magnified and distorted, like a psychological hall of mirrors.
In its premise, Annihilation bears an obvious resemblance to Stalker, Andrei Tarkovsky’s Soviet film which was also adapted from a book: Arkady and Botis Strugatsky’s Roadside Picnic. But like Get Out and The Shape Of Water, it’s another recent film that takes a familiar genre idea and bends it into something new and unexpected. There are moments in Annihilation that also feel like Garland’s homage to other sci-fi staples like Forbidden Planet, or Tarkovsky’s other masterwork, Solaris; his control as a director is such that it all flows cleanly together, like blobs of mercury.
The Shimmer itself is a fascinating, sometimes horrifying place; the visual effects can’t always keep place with the plot’s twisted imagination, but the story has such an irresistible pace that the odd digital lens flare or backdrop barely register. Likewise the performances, which are uniformly superb: Portman, Jason Leigh and Tessa Thompson all exude a restrained, quiet intelligence, while Rodriguez makes a bold contrast as a more physical, less closed-off member of the group. One of the reasons why the Shimmer feels so eerily real is because of the actors’ reaction to it – a believable compelling mixture of curiosity, fascination and increasing unease.
The quality of the performances means we’re along for the ride – which is just as well, because Garland takes us to some very strange places indeed. As events move from the grounded to the bizarre, cinematographer Rob Hardy makes every shot count, while the music – created by Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow – runs the gamut from familiar acoustic instruments to outright aural insanity.
It ought to be said that there’s method in Garland’s madness, though, and Annihilation’s startling audio-visual journey is underpinned an emotional story whose deeper meanings are sure to provoke thought and debate.
The past couple of years have brought us such flashes of genre brilliance as Arrival and Blade Runner 2049, and if there’s anything disappointing about Annihilation at all, it’s that it Garland’s film has wound up on Netflix in the UK; it arguably belonged up on a cinema screen, like all the other movies discussed in this review so far.
Its venue aside, Annihilation deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as the very best sci-fi movies of the past decade. Absorbing, disquieting, its ideas and imagery will continue to shimmer for years to come.
Annihilation is available to watch on Netflix UK now.